The sweet sultry salve to save you
Alcohol does this really charming thing: it soothes, like a silken voiced stranger who passes you a tissue when you’re crying on the street. Alcohol moves slickly over the surface of your nerves and gently numbs the hurt, the casual barbs you’ve endured in your day or the deeper cuts, scars you retrace with your fingertips at the memory of the blade’s edge. Someone cut you off in traffic, someone doesn’t love you back, someone in a position of authority is demeaning you. They are all there, these hurts, and alcohol is there too, a sweet, sultry salve to save you. Until, of course, the next morning, in the shower, throat dry, a bit scratchy, just a slight heaviness to your eyelids. ‘Everyone is tired,’ you tell yourself.
I recently sat in a training session, held over videoconference, about vicarious trauma. I was prepared for the usual talk, which outlines how hearing about trauma can be, unsurprisingly, traumatic. These sessions typically detail what vicarious trauma is, before moving on to what your reaction might be, which is, predictably, anger and sadness, but also, interestingly, cynicism. It's not generally acknowledged that often the trauma is due to an accompanying sense of helplessness as someone tells you how difficult things are and you roil in feelings of futility because you don't have the tools or the power to help them. The vicarious trauma presenter will finish by giving the audience a number of tools they can rely on like meditation, taking breaks, getting good sleep and the like. They almost never say that your boss should give you and everyone on your team less work so that you have space to recover or that they should hire another person.
This particular session was facilitated by a doctor, an MD doctor. She began by letting us all know that she is a recovering alcoholic. I felt the muscles around my spine tighten. She then began to discuss addiction and substance use disorder as she understands them, not as an MD, which she does not clarify, but with roots in AA dogmatism that were likely not obvious to the whole of the group but that were immediately recognizable to me and anyone else who has been in or around the program. She started by drawing a line between people with addictions and people without addictions. She then explained that addicts lack psychological resilience, that they cannot deal with the world, and so use substance(s) to cope.
I have always been a relatively serious person. I am often incensed at the state of things. I feel deeply aggrieved by unfairness and injustice. For years my family called me “sensitive” or, sometimes, “dramatic”. I wanted to become a vegetarian when I was 12 years old. When I was a kid, the bookmobile, a converted trailer full of books carefully curated by librarians for our tastes, would be parked outside of Twin Lakes Park, where the popular trees released their fluffy white seeds, the size of a pencil’s eraser, and they danced in the gentle breeze before settling in the space between the sidewalk and the grass. I remember sitting cross-legged on the thin carpet of the trailer to read the first chapters of books about vampires and teenagers getting murdered at summer camp, trying to decipher whether I had already read this one or that. I no longer recall what made me want to become a vegetarian, but I suspect it may have happened in the tepid air of the bookmobile one afternoon. When I came home demanding that we stop eating meat, my mom told me I could cook for myself. As it turns out, my resolve was quite weak in the face of adversity. I may have made scrambled eggs once for dinner before giving up on the endeavour and spearing a piece of roast beef, likely dramatically sighing and incessantly complaining.
In Grade 9 I had this math teacher. On my first day of class, in front of everyone, he asked me if I was as smart as my sister, who he had taught some years ago. I was offended, partly because some other adult had recently said to me, “your sisters are so beautiful,” before looking at me and tilting their head to add, “you don’t look anything like them.” For some reason I had ended up with acne across my forehead and believed strongly that I was wrong shaped, thick waisted and ugly. I was annoyed at the math teacher, not just for singling me out, which was my nightmare, but because I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would have been like if I turned out to be not as smart as her, how his comment could have watered the seed of the knowledge that I could not measure up. I suppose it was innocuous banter, but it made me dislike him.
That year I also started bussing tables at the restaurant where my mom worked. I had practically begged to get my social insurance number at 14 so that I could start, excited to shake the shackles of the child I babysat for $2 an hour who lived up the road. She cheated at Candyland and hated going to the park. I had spent part of the summer in 8-hour shifts with her while her mom worked at the convenience store, sitting inside with the curtains drawn, moving the plastic pieces over the board and trying to find my patience somewhere from a well inside me. I did that job, my mom later explained, because that woman was a single mother and because she needed someone to watch her kid while she worked and because why in the world did I think I needed more than $2 an hour at 13 years old? It was my first act of social justice work and I didn’t even know it, which is good, because I would have been mortifyingly self-satisfied about it.
My Mom worked at a Chinese buffet restaurant downtown. Since I was very young, I had spent time sitting in the booths by the cash, quietly playing with my barbies and paper tooth-pick drink umbrellas. Now I wore a crisp white shirt, black pants and an apron. I walked with purpose, sometimes grabbing a rogue chicken ball off of the floor, sticky with sweet and sour sauce, and dropping it onto the stack of plates I was carrying to the kitchen.
On one of my first shifts, I spilled an entire bowl of wanton soup down a man’s jacket, which was hung over the back of his chair. I gasped soundlessly and scanned the table, head bowed, to see if anyone had noticed. They hadn’t. I kept moving across the table as if nothing had happened. He looked like the type of man who would yell at me and I would not have that. I cannot remember what happened when he got up to leave, whether he noticed the smell and damp of salty broth on his dark dinner jacket or not.
I liked making the little pots of jasmine tea at the servery, the fragrant scent as I poured boiling water over the loose tea leaves and stacked handleless ceramic cups onto saucers. On Fridays I made sure to come home right after school to change out of my Catholic school uniform and into my work uniform. I liked getting paychecks and going to the mall to look at the CDs, flipping the flimsy plastic covered squares over in my hands and considering which one I should buy this month. I liked working and I started to try to budget my time differently so that I could still read as much as I liked to. In math class I would finish up the assigned problems as quickly as I could and whip out a book. The math teacher got mad at me for reading fiction in his class during work time. It did not matter to him that I was already done my math homework. He told me to sit and stare out the window. He went so far as to suggest that my reading fiction was somehow distracting to my other classmates. I stewed in barely concealed resentment.
The next year, when I started listening to punk rock on the recommendation of a boy I liked, my legs draped over his as we sat in the basement of his parents' house. I started to understand, and subsequently become enraged, that school was trying to teach me to blindly accept authority. I could suddenly see it everywhere, the relentless tyranny of adult group-think, led around by dogmatic rule makers, intent on following by rote what had been written no matter what. Not all of them, of course. And I sympathize now with the ones who saw the system needed some good people within it and stayed. There is great pain in that as the system slowly tries to grind down your resolve, or crushes you into dust (more likely the latter if you are a person who is already vulnerable within the system to begin with). I think about them in the teachers’ lounge, quietly eating a tuna sandwich somewhere in the corner, conscious of not making a sound on the vinyl seated dining chairs and reading Kurt Vonnegut while the others talk about refinishing their basements.
I watched the more innocuous things like the teacher who wanted the popular girls to be her friends and so she only gave detention for uniform infractions - an untucked shirt here, non-regulation tight black pants we called “Stingers” after a local bar there - to the unpopular girls, the ones without the thin, tanned bodies and easy dispositions. I saw the more problematic, a teacher ignoring a cruel boy who constantly taunted a developmentally disabled girl in the hallway; the principal telling a young girl who had gotten pregnant and started to show that it would be better for her to transfer to the public school across town; or hearing about another girl who had been expelled for failing to pay the $50 activity fee that the school demanded, meanwhile her mother, struggling with addiction, had left her and her brothers alone at home to fend for themselves, her father having left years before.
I have met loads of people who are less psychologically resilient that the people I’ve met with addictions. They are people who have had the good fortune of not really having their resilience truly tested. They are the wound-up people out there in the world demonstrating their psychological rigidity, being offended by his tattoos over there or her low cut blouse over here or that they have to learn to use the pronoun “they” even though they really, really don't want to. Or they’re in an office, screaming because something has not gone their way, acting in a way that I never would have allowed in my bar when I was a bartender but is somehow permitted in an office building where people have to also wear polyester slacks. They express their lack of resilience in a way we have determined is socially acceptable, usually because it still serves capitalism and therefore does not have to be outlawed. Rage? Fine, so long as you’re producing. Can’t get out of bed because you use substances? Sounds like you’re not ‘functional’.
Alcohol does this really sinister thing: it soothes. Alcohol moves slickly over the surface of your nerves and layers itself over your hurt, the casual barbs you’ve enduring during the day, a truck driving too quickly down your street making you fear for the kids and the cats lounging about, and the deeper pains, a creeping sense of loneliness as you look at the space beside you in your bed where you had hoped a person would be. Alcohol sometimes removes it so effectively that you think maybe the hurt is finally gone. Instead alcohol is feeding the hurt, fuelling it like sugar feeds yeast so that the hurt rises, much bigger than before, and stickier, sickly. You wake up the next day, sheets damp with sweat, reaching for the water you always keep by your bed. ‘Everyone is tired,’ you think, as you stand in the shower, willing the water from the shower head to do what you asked alcohol to do the night before, to wash away the pains from your tender heart.